Gary Lineker controversy and ‘silent prayer’ law marks worrying new lurch towards authoritarianism

For a long time now, I’ve thought that paying Gary Lineker some £1.3m a year for sounding off about things was outrageous but, after the events of this week, I think he’s worth every penny!

To be honest, the popular sports TV host had already been garnering something of a reputation for politicised remarks, but this week he has found himself at the centre of a storm of hysteria after posting a controversial tweet about the government’s new Illegal Immigration Bill.

Responding to a tweet from the Home Secretary outlining plans to stop migrants crossing the English Channel on boats which claimed the United Kingdom is “overwhelmed”, Lineker wrote: “Good heavens, this is beyond awful.”

He added: ” There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s, and I’m out of order?”

Almost immediately the media became awash with commentary, much of it accusing Lineker of comparing the Home Office to the Nazis – which he was keen to point out was NOT what he had said.

The Tory backlash was swift and unambiguous. Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson (he of ‘you can make a decent meal for 30p’ notoriety) blazed: “This is just another example of how out of touch these overpaid stars are with the voting public. Instead of lecturing, Mr Lineker should stick to reading out the football scores and flogging crisps.”

Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) urged the BBC to “stand up” to Mr Lineker and “remind him his job is to talk football, not politics”, while Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) said the Match of the Day host’s comments were a “step too far” and that he should be sacked.

Bill Cash (Stone) said: “I am really very angry he should make such an extraordinary and outrageous slur, which is complete and total rubbish. We are trying to help people who otherwise are being taken by criminals on these boats,” while fellow Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw) added: “It is not just insulting to this nation and the generosity of Brits, but also grossly offensive to the victims of one of the most evil regimes in history, which we also fought against and took many refugees from. Lineker is out of order and needs to get out of his metropolitan bubble and learn some perspective.”

Indignant Conservatives were also supported by several prominent Labour MPs, who joined the calls for Mr Lineker to variously apologise publicly, withdraw his Tweet and/or be sacked by the BBC.

Appearing on Sky News with Sophy Ridge last night, Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry said the pundit’s comments “went too far” and she “wouldn’t have said that” herself.

“I know that Gary Lineker feels very strongly about this issue, and he has brought refugees into his home and he campaigns on this issue,” said Thornberry.

“I think some of the language that Gary Lineker has used in the last 24 hours has been really very unfortunate, and I wouldn’t have used some of the [comments]… I just think that there is a special place in hell for the Nazis… I don’t think you should be making those comparisons. So I wouldn’t have said that, I think that he went too far…”

Labour Leader Keir Starmer’s spokesperson also remarked that “comparisons with Germany in the 1930s aren’t always the best way to make your argument. But Gary Lineker has been a passionate advocate on behalf of refugees …”

Lineker was having none of it, and was supported in turn by many other heavyweight celebrities and campaigners, who recognised that freedom of speech was under the magnifying glass. Former Countdown host and media personality Carol Vordeman (no mean socio-political tweeter herself) jumped to Gary’s defence, saying: “It is important that people who have a voice speak up about this appalling & corrupt government. So it’s wonderful to see the love and support for @GaryLineker today. As for the Illegal Immigration Bill….I read it as the Immigration Bill which is in itself illegal”.

Central to this particular row is the question of impartiality at the BBC (by all accounts a government department), a principle which has been getting a battering for some time now.

On the surface, BBC journalists are required only to follow the accepted norms of any broadcast organisation – its news reporters and news presents are required to present the big stories and issues of the day in a balanced manner, giving due and equal consideration to all the key aspects of any controversy. Whilst this applies to news reporters – where the facts are of essence – the same restrictions to not apply to feature and non-news staff, where in fact personal opinion and controversy have been actively encouraged over the years.

I would even argue that the essence of any good news organisation is as much in the strong opinions and analysis of its non-news staff, as it is in reporting the bare facts of any situation.

I would also point out that Gary Lineker is a freelance broadcaster for the BBC, and not a member of staff – so crucially he has no contractual requirement to adhere to the BBC’s staff rules on impartiality – though the BBC later crawled into the row and said it considered Lineker’s “recent social media activity to be a breach of our guidelines.

“We have never said that Gary should be an opinion free zone, or that he can’t have a view on issues that matter to him, but we have said that he should keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or political controversies,” the BBC added, saying that the presenter was “stepping back” from presenting Match of the Day until “we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”.

Admittedly, there’s a strong general argument that Lineker is paid to talk about football and not about politics, and the incident has created an unprecedented storm over the whole longstanding question of whether or not public figures should have any right to express personal views on the hot topics of the day.

Of course the fact that Gary Lineker has 8.7 million followers on Twitter undoubtedly added to the governments nervousness, leading Home Secretary Suella Braverman to say that she was “disappointed” by the comments, not least because she said her husband “is Jewish”.

“My children are therefore directly descendant from people who were murdered in gas chambers during the Holocaust,” she told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast.

“To kind of throw out those kind of flippant analogies diminishes the unspeakable tragedy that millions of people went through and I don’t think anything that is happening in the UK today can come close to what happened in the Holocaust.”

Lineker was quick to respond to the many criticisms: “Great to see the freedom of speech champions out in force this morning demanding silence from those with whom they disagree. [I have] never known such love and support in my life than I’m getting this morning (England World Cup goals aside, possibly). I want to thank each and every one of you. It means a lot. I’ll continue to try and speak up for those poor souls that have no voice. Cheers all.”

Amongst those who were quick to offer their support was TV presenter and media personality Carol Vorderman (actually no mean socio-political commentator herself). who Tweeted: “It is important that people who have a voice speak up about this appalling & corrupt government. So it’s wonderful to see the love and support for @GaryLineker today. As for the Illegal Immigration Bill….I read it as the Immigration Bill which is in itself illegal.”

Whatever your views on the Lineker tweet, the BBC’s subsequent statement and the general question of media staff making political comments, what’s important in a modern democracy is not that we prevent people from having a voice and expressing an opinion, but that we know where that opinion is ‘coming from’.

Back in the days when the public relied primarily on newspapers for their political news and views, it was relatively simple – you wanted left wing opinion, you bought the Daily Mirror or the People; you wanted right you bought the Times or the Telegraph. With the advent of television there was an equally clear understanding that certain commentators spoke from particular political perspectives, but did so with a passion and lack of restriction. In fact, cutting and opinionated narratives were not only encouraged but formed the very basis of the most successful TV programmes and documentary series.

Over time, and especially with the advent of the internet, those boundaries have blurred dangerously, political positions have become diluted, and we’ve largely entered a societal age where the only opinion that matters is that of the individual. Equally there has been established a kind of dull conformity that is increasingly seeking to throttle free speech and ‘alternative’ narratives.

One only has to look elsewhere in the news this week to see this creeping authoritarianism in action. Almost at the same time Lineker was tweeting about the Illegal Immigration Bill, the House of Commons was rejecting an amendment to The Public Order Bill that has effectively made ‘silent prayer’ a thought crime. The move came after pro-life campaigner Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was twice arrested for praying silently within a 150 metre ‘exclusion zone’ that had been established around a Birmingham abortion clinic.

A group of Tory and DUP MPs had tabled an amendment aimed at ensuring no offence is committed if a person is “engaged in consensual communication or in silent prayer” outside the clinics or hospitals offering abortion services. But in a free vote, the proposal was rejected by 116 votes to 299, a significant majority of 183.

Frankly, the wording of this amendment was hardly likely to attract the support of legislators, most of whom would have seen the dangers in vaguely-worded legal exemptions for religious activity, but the implications of this change yet again raise a red flag over the Public Order Bill and the direction that society is moving towards on matters of free speech.

As any journalist will tell you, the preservation of freedom of movement, speech and legal activity in the public space is a fundamental pillar of any democracy. As soon as this right is disestablished, you’re on a free run to an authoritarian regime.

The ‘exclusion zone’ principle has been introduced to deal with the specific issue of protests around abortion clinics, but the intentionally loose wording allows this legislation to effectively throw an exclusion zone around any place, event or area that the government decides, and for pretty much any reason. In short, public protest becomes an impossibility, and there’s even the prospect that large, peaceful gatherings – including even religious events – could eventually fall foul of this evolving legislation.

The tabling and rejection of the ‘silent prayer amendment’ also pushes the Bill considerably further, with the government now seeking to enter the mind of the individual protestor, and making illegal the most private and personal of religious thoughts. Carrying a banner, shouting slogans and marching up the high street may make the justification for arrest self-evident, but who’s going to decide when a citizen standing in silent prayer is engaged in what has now potentially been defined as a criminal activity?

As the old saying goes, first they came for Gary Lineker ….

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian